Wednesday, February 11, 2009

I Am Curious (Giallo): Everything You Always Wanted to Know About "Sex 'n' Slash" But Were Afraid to Ask. . .


Of all the colors of the dark, yellow is the most degenerate. Degenerate in the purest sense of the word: to be or grow worse than one's kind, or than one was originally; hence, to be inferior; to grow poorer, meaner, or more vicious; to decline in good qualities (Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, 1996, by way of Such is the unfortunate lot given to that most piss-colored, maligned, and misunderstood of all Italian subgenres, the giallo. Yes, it can be ridiculous and over the top, as excessive as a Caligulan orgy on crack, particularly in its fetishistic portrayal of fake blood, guts, and gore. But to this writer and lover of all things giallo, rarely is it ever dull or poorly executed. To quote the oft-quoted Greek filmmaker and French film critic, Adonis Kyrou, "I urge you: learn to look at 'bad' films, they are so often sublime." Let's take look at this "bad,"--no, "terrible"--subgenre.

Giallo (rhymes with hallow, plural gialli) is, if you haven't already guessed, simply Italian for the word yellow. "Yellow" was the term of endearment given to these films in the '60s and '70s since they were mostly influenced by paperback novels of the same nickname. These whodunits published in Italy with yellow covers and printed in the trademark yellowish pulp paper were penned by such popular English writers as Agatha Christie, Edgar Wallace, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The giallo is not a proper film subgenre per se, but rather, falls within the categories of suspense thriller, murder mystery, and that most ostensible of '80s horror film subgenres, the slasher flick. The slasher would not exist at all if it weren't for the giallo's general template: an unknown (usually "sex") maniac going around creatively, if not necessarily constructively, slashing and hacking his or (gasp!) her victims. But that is where the similarities end. Throw in the fact that most gialli occur in the "adult world," i.e., a more "realistic" reality in which it is adults who are the ones involved with the more nefarious aspects of life and not college co-eds who are in real life typically, well, going to college. Add a Miss Marple-type of amateur sleuth or a Hercule Poirot-type of police inspector trying to get to the bottom of the killer's identity, subtract a bunch of idiots sitting around like, well, sitting ducks, waiting to get picked off one by one, and you have the essential ingredients of this Italian subgenre.

Most giallo academics (and by "most," I mean the two or three out there) tend to credit Mario Bava's homage to Hitchcock, THE GIRL WHO KNEW TO MUCH (1963), as the first giallo. In his giallo textbook, La Dolce Morte, Mikel J. Koven suggests that the first giallo is really Visconti's neorealist classic, OSSESSIONE (1943), starring DEEP RED's Clara Calamai--a suggestion that would have made my Italian cinema professor cough up his cannoli. OSSESSIONE is based on James M. Cain's crime novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, making for a compelling suggestion since the giallo borrows heavily from the visual aesthetics and themes of the film noir, e.g., Dutch angles, stark light/dark contrasts, moral ambiguity, sexual motivation, etc. In his Bava textbook, The Haunted World of Mario Bava, Troy Howarth, however, suggests the Hawksian CORTOCIRCUITO (1943) as the giallo forerunner. This suggestion isn't too off the mark either, since CORTOCIRCUITO's "life imitates art" plot pops up in later gialli such as Argento's TENEBRE (1982) and Bruno Mattei's EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1994), not to be mistaken as a remake of Franju's masterpiece of the same name, incidentally. You can blame Jess Franco for such a remake. . . .
2009. All works published by Marvin Miranda are under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
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  1. I'm excited to follow your journey into giallo! I've only seen a few Dario Argento films... does Vampyros Lesbos count? Maybe you could give us newbies a handful of "starter" giallo films to get us up to speed?

    Here's an old post of mine that contains a nice bit of giallo trivia...

  2. Yellow is the Color of 2009!

    What better time for this blog to enter the scene. While gialli don’t evoke the cheerful mimosa-sipping shade touted as this year’s “it” color by Pantone, they are nonetheless eye-popping and attention-grabbing in their own right; more like a mimosa thrown in your face. Appropriately, this insightful post is pure gold! I anxiously await your future dissection and endorsement of this brilliant film niche that is celebrated by those lucky enough to get their hands on the coveted imports! Write on, young blogger!

  3. Wow,. . .umm,. . .want a job, Sooz? ;)

    Thank you for the post, Mr. Word Player--love your piece on The Last Mimi, an important influence in the giallo world.

    If I recall correctly, in Vampyros, she's avenging her scientist husband's killers. Oddly enough, I think Vampyros is more of an homage to the German krimi, or crime films of 50s and 60s, which always had a bit of the exotic to them. These films would also play a major influence on the gialli, especially on Argento. As a matter of fact, Bird With The Crystal Plumage, which your link mentions, was advertised in Germany as being based on a story by Edgar Wallace's son! Like how it all ties back together, like a mobius strip? :)

  4. 1945: Robert Siodmak. "The Spiral Staircase": it's even got a black gloved, perverted maniac (with distorted peception AND supposedly a "bastion of soceity") on the loose. It starts there for me.

    Terrific site and one I shall visit often. Bookmarked!